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Everyone Agrees Canada Post Needs to Change, and That's Why it Won't

12/16/2013 12:33 EST | Updated 02/15/2014 05:59 EST

Over the last few days I have received the following in my tiny apartment mailbox: six supermarket fliers, three drugstore fliers, a single Loonie store coupon, one of those bulging blue envelopes promising "OVER $700 SAVINGS" within, an Ikea catalogue addressed to the previous occupants, a few brochures hyping toothy real-estate agents, a badly-photocopied newsletter from some beady-eye claiming to be my member of Parliament, one of those passive-aggressive postcards from the dentist, and a paycheque that really should have been direct-deposited.

I'm sure absolutely none of this interests you in the slightest, and with the possible exception of the paycheque, that makes two of us. But I've noticed it's obligatory for any editorial commenting on the future of the Canadian postal service to contain at least a brief, passing reference to how annoying the author's mail is getting these days.

Last week, Canada Post revealed their big exciting Five Point Action Plan to save their perennially cash-haemorrhaging crown corporation and its unsustainably generous pensions, a plan which entails, among other things, letter carriers no longer delivering mail to your doorstep, dramatic hikes in stamp prices (coupled with the abolishment of inflation-guarded "permanent stamps"), and thousands upon thousands of layoffs.

If only someone could come up with a catchy little turn of phrase to summarize the essence of this scheme.

Y'know, something like:

"Less service and higher prices." - The Globe and Mail editorial board

"Higher prices and worse service." - Andrew Coyne, National Post

"Pay a lot more but get poorer service." - Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail

"Pay more and get less!" - Warren Kinsella, Toronto Sun

"Charge more; offer less." - Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star

So yes, the editorial pages of the nation have been a little, shall we say, single-minded in their reaction. There's been a lot of doom and plenty of gloom that far from restoring the sheen of what Margaret Wente claims was once Canada's "crown jewel of public administration," the post office's reform efforts are really more akin to, in the words of the Post's Jon Ivison, a "band-aid solution to a problem requiring radical surgery."

And just what should said surgery entail?

Wearing their libertarian hat at the moment, Globe board is happy to prescribe "innovation, competition, and privatization." Every country in Europe, they note, has either de-nationalized their national post office or scrapped its legislative protections -- none of this "competitors must charge at least three times the basic stamp rate" nonsense, or dogmatic price controls wherein "the cost of sending a letter across town within a big city is the same as sending it across the country to a remote farm" -- and it's worked out pretty well for them. So why not Canada?

Yeah, agrees Jon Ivison, international precedents are solid: privatization and/or competition of a state-owned mail corporation triggers "improvements in productivity and profitability," which in turn makes the firm more efficient, more popular, and more likely to stay in the black. And contrary to the socialistic trope that heaving a de-regulated crown corp into the open market shark tank will result in its prompt swallowing by bloodthirsty private sector carnivores, Jon thinks "a more competitive Canada Post, with access to private capital" could actually be "a formidable opponent for the parcel giants like FedEx."

But of course, such thinking is way too logical for Ottawa. So let's talk about politics instead.

There's been a fair bit of chatter among the chattering classes lately as to whether the post office's descent into a depressing, do-nothing pyramid scheme (by 2020, I assume Canada Post will throw your mail directly into the fireplace, charge $100 for a stamp that lasts 45 minutes, and redirect all revenues to paying the pensions of their three remaining employees) might possibly cause voters to sour on the prime minister constitutionally responsible for ensuring its good management.

Jeff Simpson says yes, because crappy mail service is the "kind of issue people can understand," unlike the "many other wonky policy issues" -- interest rates and whatnot -- that are presumably beyond the comprehension of Joe and Jane Slackjaw (also known as Harper's base of "suburban voters," notes Heather Mallick in the Star). Yeah, nice work Steve, agrees Warren Kinsella -- by announcing the crapification of the mail at "the time of year when Canadians rely on the postal service the most... You've just lost the next election."

Ol' Tom Walkom isn't so sure, however. Despite going full Godwin on the PM's war against the "institutions devised to hold this nation together" ("First, they took away the trains..." etc.) Tom thinks Harper's being evil like a fox. Worse services/higher costs is a horrible short-term fix to be sure, but short-terms are what politics is all about. Allowing Canada Post to collapse under the weight of its own insolvent pensions now "would have interfered with Harper's plan to go to the polls in 2015 with a balanced budget," so "the benefit of the new arrangement is clear: A better chance at four more years of Harper."

Have you spotted the central hypocrisy of all this yet?

All the pundits basically agree Canada's public-sector post office is an increasingly useless anachronism in the digital age. Many would say its costs, services, and employees are downright terrible, in fact -- and have been for ages. Yet any government that fails to reverse this decades-long status quo of irrelevant mediocrity is also said to be running the risk of triggering a massive public backlash, capable of leaving its re-election odds, at best, in doubt.

Sounds like Canada Post's not the only aging outfit in denial.